Greenberg’s Law of The Media

If a news item has a number in it, then it is probably misleading.

Here’s Why the Latest Conservative Talking Point About the $15 Minimum Wage Is Meaningless (and Here’s What You Can Do About It)

Civic Skunkworks has the article Here’s Why the Latest Conservative Talking Point About the $15 Minimum Wage Is Meaningless (and Here’s What You Can Do About It) – August 12, 2015 11:53 am

“It’s a sad fact that bullshit travels faster than truth on the internet, but if we all work together, we can stop the conservative agenda from drowning out our good news with their meaningless noise.”

There are two follow-up posts as of this writing.

Fox Business Twists the Truth Seven Times in 100 Seconds on Seattle’s Minimum Wage – August 13, 2015 12:52 pm

The Data on That Minimum Wage Report Continues to Fall to Pieces – August 14, 2015 10:54 am

This is a good series of articles to remember. Put it in your arsenal next time someone asks you to just tell them when did Faux Noise ever lie. You can also use it to cast aspersions on the “scholarship” of The American Enterprise Institute. It isn’t scholarship unless they are trying to teach how to lie with statistics.

Here are some laws to remember.

Greenberg’s Law of Counterproductive Behavior

If you see a behavior that seems to you to be counterproductive, perhaps you have misunderstood what the actor’s real goal was.

Greenberg’s Law of The Media

If a news item has a number in it, then it is probably misleading

Study: Social Security in REALLY bad shape

USA Today has the story Study: Social Security in REALLY bad shape.

“The projections developed by the Office of the Chief Actuary for the Trustees Reports are intended to reflect all aspects of future possible trends in demographic, economic, and programmatic factors, given current Social Security law,” Goss and other SSA officials wrote. King and Soneji’s projections “were within the range of reasonable uncertainty as specified in the Trustees Report, and therefore should cause no alarm.”
“Fair, transparent and accurate forecasts give Congress more of a chance to consider of all the policy proposals to preserve the solvency of Social Security,” King said. “And it’s easier to make changes to Social Security now than in the future.”

The other unmentioned assumption has to do with the wealth and income distribution. Since income has been shifted from the middle class to the wealthy in the last 30 years or so, the level of social security contributions from the middle class has declined below previous expectations.

If the SSA actuaries disclosed the impact of income distribution on their calculations, then I would be all for increased transparency. The Republicans would ignore that issue, but one can only hope that at least one politician who was looking out for the middle class would keep harping on it. Who is going to be the politician to do it after Bernie Sanders finishes his term as President?

I have put this story in the category of Greenberg’s Law of the Media.

If a news item has a number in it, then it is probably misleading.

In this case, there are several things that are misleading.

  • The numbers they give you are intended to lead you to one of the solutions. If they had put in the numbers that they left out, it might lead you to think of other solutions.
  • When the article talk about using fiscal gap accounting methods they say, “Under this accounting system, SSA’s projected unfunded liabilities would be $24.9 trillion (instead of the $10.6 trillion projected in 2088).” They don’t explain that you cannot draw the same type of conclusions from a larger number calculated by a different method, than you would if that same larger number had been calculated by the traditional method. In fact the implication is that the larger number is more “truthful” in a sense. It makes no sense to imply that.

If I didn’t make clear the reasoning behind my judgment, tell me why you think I am wrong, and I will try to tell you what I left out of my explanation. I can’t guess all the things that were going through your mind when you read this compared to all the things that were going through my mind when I wrote it.

Ted Cruz says satellite data show the globe isn’t warming. This satellite scientist feels otherwise

The Washington Post has the article Ted Cruz says satellite data show the globe isn’t warming. This satellite scientist feels otherwise by Chris Mooney.

Mooney discusses the data that Cruz uses to come to the conclusions that he does.

To explore Mears’s views further, I did one thing journalists can do when covering the climate views of presidential candidates — I contacted the researcher. And his response was quite critical of Cruz’s approach to the evidence on this issue:

Mr. Cruz (and others who seek to minimize the threat posed by climate change) likes to cite statistics about the last 17 years because 17 years ago, the Earth was experiencing a large ENSO [El Nino-Southern Oscillation] event and the observed temperatures were substantially above normal, and above any long-term trend line a reasonable person would draw. When one starts their analysis on an extraordinarily warm year, the resulting trend is below the true long term trend. It’s like a pro baseball player deciding he’s having a batting slump three weeks after a game when he hit three homers because he’s only considering those three weeks instead of the whole season.

So if you have been tempted to fall for this meme that there hasn’t been global warning recently, remember this is the trick that has been played to come to this conclusion.

They could have mentioned the President Reagan fans measuring the performance of the economy from the depths of the Reagan induced depression to the end of his term to convince you that Reagan was wonderful on the economy.

I have categorized this post as an example of Greenberg’s Law of The Media – “If a news item has a number in it, then it is probably misleading”. Actually it is probably a counter example. In this case the news article debunks one of the common techniques of misleading.

Boston scientists say triglycerides play key role in heart health

The Boston Globe has the article Boston scientists say triglycerides play key role in heart health.

A massive genetic study led by a Boston cardiologist has identified a subset of people who carry rare mutations that cause them to have dramatically lower levels of triglycerides in their blood. Those people, in turn, were 40 percent less likely to have heart disease than people who didn’t have the mutation.
The findings suggest that scientists should be looking for a way to mimic what the body does in those people with naturally low levels of triglycerides.

I posted my comments to the article on the newspaper’s web site.

Another example of the innumeracy of the press. By now there are hundreds of thousands of statisticians crying out “Correlation does not mean causation.”

It could very well be that the mutation’s side effect of lowering triglycerides may have nothing to do with causing a lower heart disease rate. It might also be that attempting to lower triglycerides by artificial means will have damaging unintended consequences. What countervailing mechanisms will the normal human body bring into play as a consequence of an artificial lowering of triglycerides? It may be that such a lowering without the gene mutation could be fatal.

Is anybody asking these obvious questions? If the doctors involved in this study aren’t aware enough to ask these questions, maybe it is too much to expect the “medical experts” in the news media to think of asking these questions.  Maybe it takes a person like myself with no degree in anything medical to see the forest among the trees.

It may be time for everybody to take another look at RichardH’s post on this blog Diversion–Highway Fatalities and Lemons.

Mindless Budget Reporting: Fooling Some of the People All of the Time

The PBS story,  Mindless Budget Reporting: Fooling Some of the People All of the Time by Dean Baker talks about an example of Greenberg’s Law of The Media. Baker is castigating a report in The New York Times.

“A plan by House leaders to cut $40 billion from the food stamp program — twice the amount of cuts proposed in a House bill that failed in June — threatens to derail efforts by the House and Senate to work together to complete a farm bill before agriculture programs expire on Sept. 30.”

The problem with this description of the Republican plan is that the proposed cut of $40 billion is supposed to be over a 10-year budget window, not a single year. (The Republicans want to cut the food stamp budget by 5 percent, not 50 percent.) This information is not reported anywhere in the article. As a result, even a very intelligent and extremely knowledgeable person like Krugman could read through the piece and be off by a factor of 10 in his understanding of the size of the proposed cuts.

One of the ways Greenberg’s Law is demonstrated is to give us a number out of context. You are obviously supposed to infer that the number illustrates some point that the reporter is implying, but you are never given the context to judge whether the desired inference is correct.  It is unlikely that the reporter knows whether the desired inference is correct.

Baker is correct that all you know is that it is a large number.  If you don’t know whether it is over 1 year or 10, or what fraction it is of the budget, or how this government spending compares to the spending of the corporate sector under similar circumstances, then you have no idea if the number is too large, too small, or just about right.  However, your thinking about the matter has been prejudiced by the report.  Because of this, you might come away from reading or hearing the story with less knowledge than you started with.

Sort of like all of Faux Noise, the more you watch, the less you know.

Charter schools in Boston score higher on key tests

The Boston Globe has the article Charter schools in Boston score higher on key tests.  If you are not a Globe subscriber, the only text you get to see is:

Boston charter schools outperform other public schools on three popular barometers of achievement — the MCAS, the SAT, and the Advanced Placement exams — but tend to have lower four-year graduation rates, according to a study being released Wednesday.

If you read the newspaper or have full access to the site, you will see the following about half way through the article:

In Boston, there are 25 charter schools.

The study examined 3,400 students who sought admission to one of the six charter high schools in Boston between fall 2002 and 2008. (The study excluded two charter high schools that closed during that period because of low performance.)

I commented on the article which reported on a study done at MIT.

If there had been more room, the headline might have said “Charter schools score higher on key tests except for the ones that don’t”  It is convenient how two schools that would have lowered the averages for the Charter schools were taken out of the study.  Perhaps the people conducting the study and doing the statistical analysis could have excluded a similar proportion of low performing public schools from the study.

With MIT accepting huge amounts of funds to build buildings named after the infamous Koch brothers and then this story, perhaps it is  true that MIT is selling its soul to the devil in order to raise funds.  Now when MIT calls me for an alumnus donation, I just tell them to put it on the Koch brothers’ tab.

State Fails To Measure Effect Of Voter ID Law

The Boston Globe story State reports few problems with voter ID law is a good example of Greenberg’s Law of the Media.

The overwhelming majority of voters who cast ballots this year in Rhode Island had no problems complying with a new voter identification law. Secretary of State Ralph Mollis’s office reported Friday that of 560,000 ballots cast in this year’s elections fewer than 190 provisional ballots were submitted because the voter failed to present a driver’s license, bus pass, or other form of ID. Lawmakers passed the law last year to prevent voter fraud.

This proves that 190 people who had no ID still attempted to vote despite the law.  It does not tell you how many people decided not to vote because they did not have the required ID.  If these people without ID who did not vote were otherwise legally eligible to vote, then I would say that these were problems.  We have no idea of how many such people there were.  So while the story appears to be true that the state reported few problems, that does not mean that there were only a few problems.  In fact there is no report of the state trying to measure how many problems there were.  It is very likely that you will not find what you do not seek.

I predict that the “information” published in this article will be used as a means to justify the continuation of the voter ID law. Perhaps a better headline would be the one I used for this article.

More Wisdom from the Guy Who Brought You “Rape Can’t Get You Pregnant”

The New Republic has the article More Wisdom from the Guy Who Brought You “Rape Can’t Get You Pregnant”.

It’s fine for magazines to debunk the pseudo-science of people in the news, but they shouldn’t use pseudo-science in one of their arguments.

In the section  titled “Legalizing abortion didn’t make abortion safer” they quoted Dr. Willke  as saying:

“If, in fact, the elimination of illegal abortion eliminated back alleys, there should have been a perceptible drop in the number of women dying. That didn’t happen. The line didn’t even blip from 1967 to 1973 and 1974. … It just kept going down at the same slow rate. There was no evidence of a decline in mortality from legalization.”

Then to disprove what he said the article posits:

In any event, evidence that his claim was totally bunk was readily available by 1989. In March of 1987, the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology published a study which read, in part, “Between 1972 and 1982 … [t]he overall death rate resulting from legal abortion dropped nearly fivefold, from 4.1 per 100,000 abortions in 1972 to 0.8 in 1982.”

In one case, Dr. Willke talks about the number of women dying.  In the other case they quote the death rate per 100,000 abortions.  Now if the death rate went down, but the number of abortions went up, then it is quite possible that the total number of deaths of women did not go down.

I am not saying that this is true.  I am just saying that people should not use arguments that are so easily ripped apart.  The New Republic is trying to show that Dr. Willke doesn’t know science, but they don’t show a great grasp of science themselves, or at least not statistics, math, or even numbers.

Chalk up another example of Greenberg’s Law of the Media – “If a news item has a number in it, then it is probably misleading.

You might find the rest of the article more enlightening.  Too bad they had to spoil it with this blunder.

Doctors dispute Akin’s claim, but some supporters say it was misunderstood

The Kansas City Star has the generally good article Doctors dispute Akin’s claim, but some supporters say it was misunderstood.

If you are wondering about the supporters’ claims to a misunderstanding,

But Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association — a nonprofit that describes itself as a pro-family organization — told The Star on Monday that “fair-minded people” know what Akin really meant by his statement. Wildmon speculated that Akin was differentiating between forcible rape and statutory rape, which can be consensual.

“What I read from some medical sources, when a woman is raped, her body shuts down in some respects that may prevent her from getting pregnant,” Wildmon said.

Wildmon adds a new wrinkle, but then goes back to repeat the same stupid statement that got Akin in trouble in the first place.

The part of the article that gets my goat is the statement:

A 1996 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, generally considered one of the few peer-reviewed research efforts on this subject, estimated that 5 percent of rapes result in pregnancy.

The above statement tells you nothing about the truth or falsity of the claims of either side.  To complete the above half a statistic, there would need to be a statement like, “and it is estimated that X percent of incidents of consensual intercourse result in pregnancy.”  If X is significantly higher than 5%, then there could conceivably (no pun intended) be some truth to Akin’s claim.  If X is significantly lower than 5%, then it might be true that rape has an enhanced rate of causing pregnancy.  If X is not significantly different from 5%, then it might be tru that rape versus consensual sex has no affect on the rate of pregnancy after the act.

So the half statistic has shown that rape may lead to enhanced rates of pregnancy, or it might lead to lowered rates of pregnancy, or it might have no effect at all.  In other words, you don’t know anymore about the effect of rape on pregnancy than you did before you read that statistic. You don’t even learn anything about the claim to rarity.  Without knowing the number X, you can’t say whether 5% means rare or frequent.

For this reason, I give the article a 5 star rating for proving Greenberg’s Law of the Media – “If a news item has a number in it, then it is probably misleading.”

The CEO Plan to Steal Your Social Security and Medicare

The Nation Of Change has the article The CEO Plan to Steal Your Social Security and Medicare.

Many of the same folks who brought the economy to ruin just a few years ago are now going to come up with a plan that is supposed to set the budget and the economy on a forward path. At the center of their proposal are big cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

It is an interesting article even if I do classify this as an example of Greenberg’s Law of the Media.  He talks about an 0.3% change per year in the COLA adjustment for Social Security, aggregates this to 3% over ten years and then compares this to the 3% change in upper income tax rate.  3% is 3%, right?  Well 0.3% a year is  not the same as 3% a year and 3% over 10 years is also not the same as 3% over 1 year.  Putting this aside, the rest of the article might supply you with some information you didn’t know.